The Greatest Game Ever...of the Week: Super Mario 64

It's crazy to think that it's been nearly 20 years since the release of Super Mario 64. It's the sort of thing that kind of makes you feel old when you look back at 1996 and the arrival of the Nintendo 64. But it has indeed been 19 years since that fateful day when Nintendo would once again revolutionize gaming. It's no secret that Super Mario 64 is one of the most cherished platformers of all time, and it's definitely earned its spot on a lot of people's top games lists.

For as influential as it may have been in the '90s, though, it's the fact that Super Mario 64 is still one hell of a ride today that makes it so amazing. Yes, it's such a great game even by modern standards that it's worthy of the title of greatest game ever ... of the week.

The new Mushroom Kingdom

If you played Super Mario 64 around the time of its launch in 1996, you knew within the first few moments after powering on your Nintendo 64 that you were in for the experience of a lifetime. That opening game logo accompanied by the plumber's introductory “It's-a me, Mario!” proclamation signaled the dawn of a new era. And after you stretched Mario's face around a bit on the start screen, you eagerly selected a save file and watched as Mario, for the first time ever in a video game, popped out of a warp pipe in stunning polygonal 3D.

Sure enough, I got those same feelings when playing Super Mario 64 again, this time in 2015. As you stand before Princess Peach's castle, you can't help but feel elated at the myriad of potential things to do within those castle walls. But first, before you even begin to do any of that, you get the urge to immerse yourself in the child-like excitement that comes from simply running around in front of the castle, climbing trees, and leaping into the moat for a swim.

Though it's actually quite small compared to other incarnations of the Mushroom Kingdom (because the levels themselves take place inside paintings rather than in the Mushroom Kingdom proper), this is still one of the most impressive versions of the region. This is because you don't immediately realize how small it actually is, and that's due in part to the 3D landscape. This is one of the few times when you get to run around the Mushroom Kingdom in full 3D, and it's easy to be overwhelmed at first, even if you eventually figure out that it's not really that expansive.

Worlds within paintings

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Though the castle area itself may not be all that huge upon close inspection, Super Mario 64 boasts 15 worlds that invite you to explore in search of Power Stars and secrets. These worlds are hidden behind paintings on the castle walls, and all it takes is one big leap of faith to access them. Maybe it's because I've played hundreds of games since 1996, or perhaps it's modern gaming's approach to open world gameplay, but these worlds aren't as large as I remember them being. Even then, they're packed with sights to see and things to do.

The painting worlds in Super Mario 64 are nowhere near what you'd see in something like Skyrim (obviously), but you shouldn't sell these levels short. The moment you enter Bob-omb Battlefield, your first instinct is to explore. Though surrounding hills house the level, you never feel trapped, and the sense of freedom and discovery only continues to grow as you visit more worlds. Whomp's Fortress, Lethal Lava Land, and Tiny-Huge Island all provide this captivating open-ended look and feel that awakens your inner explorer. And don't even get me started on my personal favorite, the vertically designed Tall, Tall Mountain.

Platforming redefined

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In 1996, Super Mario 64 revolutionized the way we played platformers, so much so that you can consider 2D and 3D platformers two distinct genres. And yes, other games have done it better in recent years — not surprisingly, Nintendo outdid itself with the Super Mario Galaxy titles — but that still doesn't take away from just how super Super Mario 64 was and still is. Each level is perfectly crafted to suit Mario's acrobatic skills.

Playing the recent Wii U Virtual Console release I realized that the combat takes a backseat to the platforming. In fact, “backseat” may be an understatement, because Mario's punches and kicks are nowhere near as pivotal to the experience as his various diversified jumping techniques. Whether you're scaling a snowy mountain, wall-jumping to avoid death via pitfall, or delving deep into Bowser's multi-tiered levels, twitch reflexes and perfectly timed button presses are an absolute must — Super Mario 64 really does take the platforming design of old from 2D to 3D.

And after replaying Super Mario 64 I noticed something else too: it's a lot more difficult than I thought it would be. As a kid, I struggled to get some Power Stars, but I figured this time around it would be easy. It turns out that Super Mario 64 is a clever, fiendish little platformer. Perhaps it's the insane amounts of hand-holding or the repetitive tutorials that are commonplace now, but Mario's jump to 3D is actually quite tough. At the opposite end of that difficulty, however, is a sense of satisfaction and an undeniably high fun factor, making the challenge wholly worthwhile.

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One of the absolute must-play games of our time

I won't sit here and tell you that Super Mario 64 is the perfect 3D platformer. The camera can be finicky to a fault, often causing your demise. There are only three new power-ups (four, if you count riding Koopa Troopa's shell like a skateboard), and these are used sporadically. Not to mention gaming has evolved by a quantifiable leap since. That said, there's just no denying that this game is one of the true must-play titles of all time.

I downloaded and played Super Mario 64 on the Wii U over a four-day period, collecting all 120 Power Stars and giving Bowser a good walloping in the process. Not only was I taken down a nostalgic trip back in time, but I genuinenly had fun playing the entire time. There's no getting around it: Super Mario 64 is one of the greatest games ever created.